Wayne County served as a destination for veterans from across the country.
Some of them knew each other overseas. Others were complete strangers. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, each veteran had sacrificed something. Some were missing legs. Others had seen good friends commit suicide.
Jeremy McCarty helped bring them together, from Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada. One of the men carried a shotgun in Vietnam.
Though he was not in the service, McCarty owns a track chair for disabled veterans. That day, it sat in the driveway at the home where he grew up a few miles west of Corydon.
"It gives us the ability to help these unfortunate amputees," said Scott Gatto, a veteran from Michigan who served in the Marines from 2001 to 2010. While overseas, he was stationed in Iraq. "It gives them the power to do it on their own."
"I've taken five different guys with spinal cord injuries out hunting in the last two years," McCarty said.
Matt Catron from Tennessee served with Gatto from 2001 to 2005. Together, they helped start Reunite the Fight, a 501(c)(3) organization. McCarty would like to begin a local chapter. Heroes Hunting based in Grimes also helped with the Wayne County event.
As Gatto, Catron and McCarty talk in the basement of his house, some veterans are out on the hunt, while one is sleeping on the couch behind them.
"Part of what we do is reunite guys who served together," Gatto said. "After we started the organization about a year ago, we did the deer classic with Jeremy. We had eight veterans all tag out—shot their biggest whitetail, or their first whitetail ever. He orchestrated all the volunteers, the sponsorships and fundraising, and really went above and beyond.
"Veterans come back and there's a transition period. You go from being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and you expect that out of not just yourself but the people underneath you and above you. If they're not performing their duties, you're upset.
"You go from 190 guys serving together—the reason you wake up in the morning, put the uniform on, go out in the streets and put yourself in harm's way is not for people sitting back here in America—that was the reason you joined, to have that honorable service to your country. But when you're in it, you wake up for those guys.
"One day, that time comes to an end. They pat you on the back and hand you a piece of paper, and they say, ‘Thank you for your service.' The next day you wake up, you have no responsibility.
"Some guys have desensitized, they've come down. We know people like this we've personally served with—I couldn't tell them their shirt's not buttoned correctly. They would freak out. They've escaped that realm of responsibility. I know one guy, he has so much potential to offer the world, but he doesn't see it in himself.
"Whereas, you have other guys who got out and they take it as a challenge. Matt and I are those type of guys. We were in this wishy-washy space for a few years, trying to figure out what you're going to do next, but you're hell bent on not failing. If there's one thing the military teaches you, failure is the worst thing ever. You don't want to fail yourself, your peers, your family, and if you set yourself up for success—and if you fail, you get up, brush yourself off and try it again—you become a well-rounded individual. Staying active in your life, career, religion, family and friends allows you a little bit more freedom and confidence to get past the past.
"You never really move on completely, but you're able to at least go forward.
"You come out with a new appreciation for life, but that's lost for some of the guys—they saw things they shouldn't have."
"We have a lot of our personal friends and brothers we served with we've seen struggle," Catron said. "One of my best friends took his own life May 2nd two years ago. He was a Navy Corpsman, and when we got out, I lived with him for four-and-a-half years. He had PTSD, he was struggling with depression. He'd just lost his job. What aggravates me is he didn't talk to anybody. I would've done anything in the world for the guy.
"He didn't act like he was struggling. One day, he decided he would pull into a Food City parking lot 10 minutes from my house and take his life.
"That was where my drive came in—I decided I really wanted to do something to try to help everybody. We have a lot of other veterans in the same boat that took their own lives. I got tired of seeing that. I got tired of seeing my brothers struggle.
"So, Scott called me up with this idea and I jumped onboard."
"We argue about the color of the sky, the taste of a gummy bear, which beer is better," Gatto said. "Veterans tend to be very opinionated people. When you're sitting in the middle of a jungle, in a foxhole, or waiting in the middle of a desert in an LZ for a helicopter pickup—you're basically just left out there to die with nothing—you have nothing better to talk about except the argument of religion, politics or what color the sky is at the moment.
"That's where that bond comes together. Because when you're at your lowest lows with these individuals—a lot of the time, when guys get back together there's a lot of excitement, chatter and jokes. Even with this group we've had at camp, not everybody knows each other. What Jeremy likes to do is bring in a veteran from every branch of the military. Which is very cool. But we've all been through some kind of experience. It's events like this that allow us to step out of the box.
"One man shot his first turkey today. He got blown up by an IED in Afghanistan six months in. The night before the hunt, I asked him whether he had prosthetics, because I wondered how he was going to hunt this turkey.
"Veterans, male or female, they get out of the service and they lose motivation. They lose the desire to do things. They lose trust in the population. When they get out, they just kind of clam up. When they come out to trips like this and in the companionship of fellow veterans, who have been in similar situations and space in life, they're able to connect with those people and relax and share their experiences.
"But also, like for former Marine Ron Sullivan today, the guy's out there with a shotgun and no legs low crawling on the ground 80 yards to get close to a turkey and take a shot at it—something that people with legs don't attempt to do—it gives him a sense of empowerment, the drive to experience a new thrill. That's part of what the military offered, the adrenaline and being in combat. And once you experience it, it's something you always lean on—it makes you feel alive. You crave it. It's almost like a drug.
Veteran Ron Sullivan, a double amputee, shot this turkey after low crawling almost 100 yards.
"There are a lot of guys we know who have drug or alcohol addiction problems," Gatto continued. "People don't realize. The Marine Corps, for example, was formed at Tun Tavern in Pennsylvania in 1775 over beer. They went to a tavern, drank beer and basically formed a militia they called the Marine Corps, and became one of the departments of defense, an elite fighting force.
"That was a staple in the military. You have the Marine Corps Ball, which is the birthday celebration, you drink beer. This is part of the breaking of the bread, the comradery—almost like the final meal of Christ. It's the one time where everyone can fraternize, the upper echelon of leadership and the lower, they all are one.
"The Army does their celebration, the Air Force and so on. That's part of the celebrating period, but people get out and that's what they're prone to, and it becomes a problem, eventually.
"Not everyone has a drinking problem, not everyone's looking for a job—not everybody needs a job—there are a few guys who are amputees or medically retired.
"Everyone has different things they need help with, and where we've gotten strongly involved with Jeremy, Jeremy gives back to the community, we give back to our community. When we started Reunite the Fight, there were two common goals. One was to restore comradery within the ranks, so people who exit the uniform no matter what era, no matter male or female, no matter what MOS, no matter if they're disabled or not—if they raise their right hand and they got an honorable discharge, they can utilize Reunite the Fight to reunite with the people they served with.
"I know when I see Matt—we went 12 years without seeing each other—the first minute we saw each other again, it was a big hug and we picked up right where we left off. It didn't matter what we missed in the 12 years. We knew what the time we spent together meant. You don't get that anywhere else in the world.
"The second thing we try to do, we get involved with our communities and find out what issues our veterans are having. When we get guys together like this, we're able to have the conversation: ‘Are you having any trouble with your disability claim?'"
A continuing problem is a mistrust by veterans of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There is a disconnect.
"I could get my healthcare all covered by the VA," Gatto said. "And I don't deal with them at all, because I don't trust them as far as I could throw them. That's how a lot of veterans feel. We feel betrayed by our government. We feel betrayed by the system. Why do we have to have this in-depth process? It should be: This is where you were at, this is the time you served—you've had some combat action, you probably have some PTSD. It should just be covered, but we have to fight for it. Guys lose the drive and they just don't want to deal with it mentally.
"That's where we're able to connect with veterans—we're on the same team, and when we say we'll help you, we help them navigate the system to get jobs or get their disability claims pushed through. If they need help with counseling, there are websites, we can provide all the information. We have to put some ownership on the veteran—‘We'll help you, we'll give 120 percent, but you've got to give 120 percent back,' and reinvigorate that purpose, which drive's the warrior spirit.
"We're a quality, not a quantity organization. If someday we become a quantity, it's because we do quality work. We believe in setting the example, raising the bar."
McCarty has appeared in articles in The Des Moines Register, Field & Stream Magazine, and Realtree, among other publications.
"I was ornery back in the day, I was an athlete and I didn't excel at school," McCarty said. "I've always looked back on my past—if it wasn't for hunting, I would've probably gone down roads that got me in trouble. Hunting gave me an opportunity.
"What hunting's all about, and what it's supposed to be about, is sharing it with your friends and family and having a good time, and we're getting too far away from that. It's getting to where people are greedy about it. You can't find a place to hunt. So, I started taking kids out around 15 years ago. I took my first veteran out on a deer hunt three years ago. Whether it's veterans or kids, it's something I enjoy doing.
"I'm to the point where I don't have to go shoot something. I get more of a thrill out of taking these guys. Some of these guys are like my family now."
McCarty graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1995, and he owns a roofing and siding business as well as Chasing the Rut LLC and Turkey Reapers.
Crystal Clear Water Company of Des Moines sponsored this April's turkey hunt.
Local men Josh Palmer, Scott Bunnell, Quentin Jacobsen, Kinzer Knust, just to name a few, volunteered to help, as well.
"An important part of these hunts comes from the partnership with Danner and Lacrosse footwear," McCarty said. "And a special thanks to Benchmade Knife Company, Mossberg, Ledlensor, Nose Jammer, Tactacam, Vortex Optics and Hevi-Shot, as well as local landowners.
"If you were brought up right and you're loyal and passionate, you should always be very giving to veterans. We're very lucky to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We don't know how good we have it. Reunite the Fight is doing things right.
"If you don't open that door to someone, they could do something really bad to themselves. I've had people ask, ‘Why do you have so many people in turkey camp?' If I didn't think we could handle it, I wouldn't have that many."
McCarty would also like to organize an event combining disabled children with veterans, which might include walleye fishing.
"We've got a good group of kids now in Wayne County," McCarty said. "The ones I've taken hunting, they're out here wanting to help the veterans. They like them, and they interact really well with them. That means a lot."
"Jeremy is one of these people who cares and wants to give back," Gatto said. "What he's done with the deer classic and this turkey hunt, not only with veterans, but he does a lot with youth. That's important, because most of us have kids. They're the future of our country—the future of freedom. He educates these kids about the men and women who fought and served, and takes them on hunting, fishing and outdoors experiences they're probably not getting at home, at no cost. He utilizes what he does best, and that's hunting. He deserves a lot of credit."
"Every veteran who comes to Iowa should have the opportunity to hunt," McCarty said. "And when veterans come and hunt here, they want to live here."
"This is how the world is connected," Gatto said. "This is the power of networking. Sean Simmons—another Marine who's here right now—met Jeremy in passing. Jeremy's done a lot of work in the veteran community. Sean came up to an event I hosted in Michigan. Jeremy and I hit it off, and he called me up and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in coming to Iowa?'
"The principle is giving back. If you do a good job and put in a hard day's work with good people, you get good results."
Not everyone in the country is so hospitable. Recently, Reunite the Fight held a golf outing in Pasadena, Fla.
"It was just outside of St. Petersburg," Gatto said. "Rich people were complaining about the registration price when they have the money. People up in other states where we're hosting don't have the money, and they're willing to shell it out. That's the reality of the business we're in.
"We sent a woman to Hawaii, dying of cancer, with her 18-year-old daughter, because Make a Wish Foundation would not touch her, because her daughter was already 18. She was a 46-year-old Navy veteran, and she's on her death bed right now with ovarian cancer. We provided her 10 days in Hawaii, raised $16,000, forked out a couple $1,000 more on our end—every activity paid for—all she had to spend money on was shopping.
"In another success story, a gentleman lost his 17-year-old daughter and he has a 10-year-old with leukemia. We were able to provide close to $5,000 to this family just to get them through a couple of months where they could be at home and recover emotionally. We got counseling services involved, too.
"What Jeremy does here at the camp is bring guys back together and lets them have a great experience. He allows veterans the opportunity to do something they otherwise would have never done.
"That's what we do it for. It's not about the kill, it's about the comradery."